Ethical Issues In Milgram's Obedience Studies Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Experiment, Study, Ethics, Psychology, Crime, Prison, Obedience, Dilemma

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2021/03/16


One of the most controversial and discussed about happenings in the world of Psychology is Milgram’s experiment of “Learning by obedience to authority”. The experiment attracted mixed reviews from the psychology fraternity, with some people upholding the view that his experiment was highly unethical, while others were of the view that he did not go against any ethics, considering the standard of ethics in those times.
This paper will analyze the ethical justification of the experiment, taking a reference to the Code of Ethics by British Psychological Society. It will also retrospect if the ethical issues, which cropped up in the study, were predictable and could have avoided beforehand. The discussion will conclude by pointing out the changes in the ethical guidelines that this experiment called upon.

Ethical Issues in Milgram’s Obedience Studies

The study of psychology has developed, evolved, and travelled over a period of time to reach the stage where it is today. However, this journey was not a bed of roses. It has seen its own sets of downsides and controversies. One of such controversial studies in the domain of psychology is Milgram’s experiment on “learning by obedience to authority”. The controversy surrounding this experiment resulted from the unethical impacts it is believed to have on its participants. This resulted in the further evolution of ethical guidelines, forcing a signed consent of the participants before being involved in a study, after having them informed of any possible negative impact which might get inflicted on them.
However, the times of debate over ethics in psychology have not seemed to end. It is still trying to figure out the limit up to which the ethical guidelines can hamper and/or help the research. Milgram’s experiment is believed to have gained initial limelight only because of the results of the experimental research. The ethical controversy for the study followed later only when the results were studied in detail. More so, for his methods of conducting the experiment (Baumrind, 1964).
Another such experiment which created waves of controversy across the world of psychology is Zimbardo’s prison experiment. Zimbardo (1973), along with his team, conducted a two-week research in order to understand the prison life, and whether the brutality reported among the guards was due to the sadism of the guards or the environment of the prison.
These studies have been highly criticized by the psychologists over time, yet they continue to be cited in various studies even today. This, being the focal point of the essay, will elaborate in detail and conclude whether the experiments were indeed unethical?
Milgram’s experimental study traces its roots back to the times of World War II, which was probably one of the most devastating events to have taken place ever in the world. It managed to leave a lasting impact on the history, which will linger on in the memories of many generations to come. The war ended over time, but not its effects. It etched an odd brutality into the instinct of people. The ones that continued to perpetuate violence even after the war ended, were not the warriors, terrorists or the army soldiers. They were the seemingly ordinary people, the next-door neighbors. These ordinary people instinctively picked up a behavior of obeying to their seniors and executing their brutal commands, slowly but completely transforming into mass murderers. One of such persons to have made the most influence during the period was Adolf Hitler (Cartwright, 1979). This was the period to have piqued an intrigued interest in the obedience to authority and the cruelty it can cause, among the social psychologists. Stanley Milgram, one among those, performed a study to understand the tendency of people to learn by obeying to the authority (Blass, 2009). The motivation driving this research was to try and explain the behavior of Nazis during the war, and a commonly held assumption that the Germans had a natural tendency to obey the orders easily (Russel & Gregory, 2010).
In order to test out this assumption, Milgram organized an experimental setup, wherein he managed to rope in the American citizens to play the role of teachers, who would be responsible for instructing the learners. The setup revolved around a memory task, and every wrong answer from the student would qualify for a shock from the teacher, varying from mild to lethal. The participants who came for the study were informed that they would be part of an experiment which is designed to understand the effects of punishment on learning abilities. The participants were made to pair up along with a confederate from Milgram’s team, who was aware of the whole background plot of the study. The participants were told that they would be randomly assigned the roles of either a teacher or a learner, but they were always deceptively made to play a teacher and the confederate, always that of a learner. The experimenter placed the teachers behind a shock generator and ordered them to increase the shock level with every incorrect answer. Three consecutive shocks from a teacher will cause the experiment to end for that participant (Russel & Gregory, 2010). The results of the experiment both shocked and surprised everyone at the same time. The fear of the punishment made more than 60 per cent of the students obey their teacher. This means that about two-thirds of the population was proved to be capable of obeying to an authority, to the extent of causing extreme pain to others (Gibson, 2011).
Similarly controversial on the ethical grounds was Zimbardo’s prison experiment. To study the psychology of the people in prison, he converted a basement of the university into a mock prison. The students were roped in to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners for a fortnight. The finalized participants were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards. In order to keep the situation as real as possible, the prisoners were randomly picked up and arrested from their homes, without any prior warning. The guards were also issued police uniforms, along with whistles, handcuffs and glasses. Physical violence was not permitted, though. The prisoners were treated just like other criminals. They underwent the process of being booked under charges, photographed, and fingerprinting. Following this, they were blindfolded and driven to the mock prison. Having arrived at the prison, the prisoners were stripped naked, had their possessions removed, and were given the prison clothes and beddings, with an ankle chained. Three guards were assigned to nine prisoners, each on a duty shift of eight hours. This is where the whole process began and Zimbardo began to observe and study their behavior.
Within hours of the beginning of the experiment, both guards and prisoners began to settle in their new roles. The guards began to behave in a sadistic and brutal way, harassing the prisoners. The prisoners suffered from taunts and insults, and were dehumanized. This led to their getting used to their roles of prisoners pretty quickly, too. They began to gossip about the issues in the prison and started taking the prison rules seriously as if the infringement would cast disaster on them. The relationships between the guards and the prisoners saw tidal changes over the next couple of days, with one’s behavior impacting another. The guards took over the control and the prisoners became submissive to the guards. The submissive nature of the prisoners made the guards even more aggressive and demanding of greater obedience. As a result, some of the prisoners started to show signs of early depression and emotional disorder. Owing to the danger of someone getting physically or mentally hurt, Zimbardo had to cut down the experiment in six days, which was originally planned for a fortnight.
Milgram’s experiment faced extreme criticism on various grounds, irrespective of the results of the study. First criticism to come forward on the grounds of ethics was the lack of a well-informed consent from the participants, prior to the commencement of the experiment. The participants were not made aware that they had the option of quitting the experiment anytime they would want to, and could have even refused to agree to the order of the authority. This was especially important because many psychologists argued that the participants might have backed out of the study if they had known beforehand what they were getting into. However, Milgram’s study could be defended on the ground of missing strictness of the ethical standards of that era and that he did not technically act unethically, going by the criteria of the times. In fact, it was only his experiment which made the field of psychology to bring about a tidal change in the ethics of informed consent (Williams, 2008).
Second factor to attract the controversy over the experiment was the deception which wrapped the research work setup. Deception, in the field of psychology, unlike those times, is acceptable to a certain extent nowadays, provided it does not bring about any negative effects on the participants. If not for the deception, the participants would be aware of what is the response expected out of them, which might influence the results of the experiment. However, the use of deception was another major focal point of controversy that Milgram’s study managed to dig up. This debate on deception has still not reached its conclusion – what can be called as the acceptable deception limit and how does one judge when the limit has been crossed? However, in this particular case, the important question was not if the participants suffered of deception, but if their objection to being deceived in the first place was there because they came face-to-face with the extent of cruelty they were sub-consciously capable of inflicting (Herrera, 2001).
This study, and the knowledge that they were capable of obeying to the authority, was believed to have brought upon a change in the self-image of the participants. The knowledge that they had been fooled worsened the damage. This altered self-image affected their ability to place their trust in others, leading to a long-term damage on their subconscious. The participants also complained of suffering from extreme anxiety during the experiment, caused by the distress created by the procedure.
The Zimbardo’s experiment also ended up becoming a recipient of criticism on ethical grounds, which included lack of fully informed consent by the participants. What added to the criticism was the level of humiliation and distress experienced by the participants acting as prisoners. The results of the study highlighted how situations can shape our behavior, feelings, and thoughts. Zimbardo still believed that if this were a true prison, nobody would have pointed out the dehumanizing nature of the environment, and would give it to the personal disposition. Also, in the real environment, people are bound to adapt to the situation. This study sheds light on the nature of human power and its pervasive corruptive impacts.
Because of all these factors, it becomes hard to justify these experiments as even remotely ethical. It is often believed that the feeling of anxiety and distress that the participants went through during and after the experiments was foreseeable in these cases. Many psychologists argue that the experimenters knew this from the previous studies conducted by them, but they still went ahead with the experiment. This fact bends the balance a little towards marking the studies as unethical (Cave & Holm, 2003). However, Milgram defended this by saying that the harm inflicted upon the participants was not permanent. Moreover, the benefits that came out of the results of the study outweighed the anxiety suffered by the participants. Zimbardo defended himself by saying that the consent by the participants could not be fully informed, since he himself was not in a position to predict what would happen in the experiment. He failed to create an environment where he could keep the prisoners away from the physical and/or mental harm. But, ethically, any amount of discomfort or distress caused to the people participating in a study is still uncalled for. These studies brought psychology to a point from where we have not been able to move any further – how much harm is acceptable and justified?


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Cartwright, D. (1979). Contemporary social psychology in historical perspective. Social Psychology Quarterly, 42, 82-93. doi:10.2307/3033880
Cave, E., & Holm, S. (2003). Milgram and Tuskegee – paradigm research projects in bioethics. Health Care Analysis, 11, 27-40. doi:10.1023/A:1025333912720
Gibson. S. (2011). Milgrams obedience experiments: a rhetorical analysis. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 290-309. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02070.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17
Herrera, C. D. (2001). Ethics, deceptions and ‘those Milgram experiments’. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 18, 245-256. doi:10.1111/1468-5930.00192
McArthur, D. (2009). Good ethics can sometimes mean better science: Research ethics and the Milgram experiments. Science and Engineering Ethics, 15, 69-79. doi:10.1007/s11948- 008-9083-4
Russel, N. J. C., & Gregory, R.J. (2010). Spinning an organizational “web of obligation”? Moral choice in Stanley Milgrams “obedience” experiments. The American Review of public Administration, 41, 495-518, doi:10.1177/0275074010384129
Williams, J. R. (2008). The Declaration of Helsinki and public health. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 86, 650-652. doi:10.1590/S0042-96862008000800022

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